If you had to guess what was responsible for driving over half of all internet traffic, what would you say? Social media? Paid ads?
According to 2017 and 2014 Bright Edge reports, “51% of traffic…comes from organic search.” While it’s not always the trendiest or fastest form of digital marketing, search engine optimization, commonly referred to as SEO is critical for tapping into the largest traffic source online—search.
The good news is, the basics of SEO are similar across the board. We’ll dive into the best practices for SEO toward the end of this article, but let’s first examine how varieties of searches might impact the way results are ranked, which can impact the effectiveness of certain SEO practices for reaching your target audience.
National vs. Local Search
A search engine’s ultimate goal for each and every search is to return results that are exactly what a user was looking for.
To do this, the search engine customizes rankings using a variety of factors (i.e., their “algorithm”) to determine how well a search result matches up with a query based on the users intent and location.
For example, imagine you are looking for a doctor that specializes in feet. Searching something like “doctor that specializes in feet” returns vastly different results than “doctor that specializes in feet Knoxville.”
Key considerations search engines take into account:
- Is the user looking for something nearby?
- Is the user searching for general information?
- Is the user searching for an image?
- Is the user looking for products?
The answers to these questions and more impact the way results are ranked and will change the results supplied by a search engine, like Google. While Google looks at more than 200 ranking factors, the factor with the most impact on determining how to direct your SEO efforts is whether your target audience is looking for local information or national information.
The most specific of the two is local search.
Local searches are queries where users are searching for information specific to a certain area like a town or neighborhood. In order to serve up more useful information, Google and other search giants look for keywords and phrases that indicate local search intent and return local results over national.
For example, searches for keywords like “doctor” or “dentist,” which seem like they’d be hard to rank for nationally, return local search results. This means these terms return local search results that change based on the user’s location and the results for someone in Chicago will differ from the results for someone in San Francisco.
Comparison of local search results for “doctor” in Chicago and San Francisco
In addition to specific keywords that typically imply “local intent,” like “doctor” above or “dentist,” Google uses some local modifiers to trigger local searches. For example:
- “Near me” as in “podiatrists near me.”
- Addition of town names as in “ophthalmologists Nashville TN.”
- Addition of location names like “urgent care clinic near Walt Disney World.”
Below we’ll share the best practices on how to optimize for local search.
When it comes to more general topics, like conditions or treatments, there isn’t as much difference in the expected results for a user in the Midwest compared to the East Coast. Results for these searches are typically very similar nationally. While ads and some local information may still appear, the basic results for someone searching “varicose vein symptoms” in Las Vegas and Philadelphia are going to be the same regardless of location.
Comparison of national search results for “varicose vein symptoms” in Las Vegas and Philadelphia
As we previously established, the purpose of distinguishing local and national searches is providing users with the most relevant results for a given query. When users are expecting to find something nearby, like a doctor’s office, the best results are local, but if a user is searching for the most authoritative answer to something like “varicose vein symptoms,” the best results might be nationally-ranked specialists instead of the general practitioner up the street.
Search is Now More Than a Location
Due in large part to the explosion of popularity for digital assistants, search engines have begun including vast amounts of data about users to customize a lot more about searches than their location.
For example, Google now offers snippets that directly answer questions, can search in your email for a confirmation of your next doctor’s appointment and show you the date, and so much more.
These new types of queries go hand in hand with local and national search to allow search engines to provide better and better information to your potential patients and defining a solid search engine optimization plan is vital for seeing the best return on this hugely popular marketing channel.
Search Engine Optimization Basics
Regardless of which type of searches you are targeting, the basic building blocks of SEO are fairly consistent; the difference is in the specific ways you use these components based on your strategy. For example, every good SEO plan, whether national or local, includes three basic elements.
3 Search Engine Optimization Basics
- Keyword-optimized content, page titles, descriptions, and other elements (like image names and alt text).
- Correct and consistent contact information including the business name, address, phone number, and email address.
- Consistent updates with quality content, like blog posts, social media updates, or new topic pages
The general idea is to make sure that search engines can understand and process your content as well as that your business appears open and active. All these elements come together to create a sense of authority on a given topic, which yields higher rankings and more traffic.
Optimizing for Local Search
Now that we’ve established the difference in local and national search and some search engine optimization basics, we can discuss the difference in optimizing for local searches and national searches.
When it comes to local SEO, the tactics aren’t vastly different from any other kind of SEO, but the targeted keywords and phrases are designed to get your practice to show up for location-based search queries. When working on local SEO, our focus isn’t only on big search engines like Google; we are also looking to directories and other local listing sources as well as map listings.
Perhaps the easiest way to look at this is to distill a local SEO plan down to 3 main components:
- General search optimizations
- Directory citation optimizations
- Map search optimizations
General Search Optimizations
Let’s assume you are trying to optimize your physical therapy practice for local searches in Savannah, GA. You’ve determined that “physical therapy”, “physical therapist”, and “orthopedic center” are all keywords that get a lot of traffic and match your area of expertise well. You can optimize your practice site around these keywords and versions like “physical therapist in Savannah” by including them in copy, image alt text, and other SEO-related settings on your homepage or other pages. Ideally, with a little conscious effort in optimizing your website, it will begin to show up first for a search query like “physical therapist Savannah GA.”
Directory Search Optimizations
Perhaps the second unique element of local SEO (behind maps) compared to national SEO is directory listings. While you may not be crazy about the idea of getting your practice listed on review sites, like Healthgrades or Vitals, these sites, and their reviews play an important role in local SEO. To start with, you want to make sure all your listings have complete and accurate details—you also want to make sure they are consistent to reduce the potential of duplicate listings.
Once you have good listings setup, you’ll turn your focus toward maintaining an “active presence” by getting a consistent flow of good reviews as well as adding new photos and other updates as appropriate. Depending on the listing site, as little as five good reviews and uploading a handful of photos of your practice can put your practice at the top of location-specific directory searches.
Don’t forget to hit both general and industry-specific listings; you want to be listed when someone searches on Facebook, ReferralMD or HealthGrades. You don’t have to be everywhere, but you do want to have good listings in the top directories.
Maps Search Optimizations
Some good news on maps is that many of these sites are already tied to directory listings. For example, Google uses Google My Business listings to populate Google Maps searches. Optimizing these listings and your site for location data will help push your listings in map results up.
Unlike Google Maps, there are a few maps listings that do not tie directly to directory listings, for example, Apple Maps or Mapquest, and you should make sure your practice is submitted directly to these platforms to ensure your listing is correct.
Why Focus on Local SEO?
The greatest benefits of a Local SEO campaign are typically more tangible compared to a national SEO campaign. In addition to benefits like increased search rankings and more web traffic, great local SEO can actually drive more physical traffic through your practice door.
One of the biggest shifts in SEO over the last few years has been the consistent growth of the share of internet traffic from mobile devices.
With mobile devices surpassing 50% market share a couple of years ago, search giants, like Google, have begun to roll out mobile first listings and increasingly rely on mobile device location services to provide location-specific results that are far more accurate than previous geolocation methods based on IP address and other data.
Due in large part to the number of mobile phone users searching on the go, it is not beyond the realm of possibility to see a flood of new people through your doors, thanks to a solid local SEO plan.
In fact, according to Google, “76% of people who search on their smartphones for something nearby visit a business within a day…” and 28% of those searches result in buying decision, like purchasing a product or service or scheduling an appointment.
Optimizing for National Search
As we previously established, the key differentiator for national search is whether there is implied or stated location-specific intent. National SEO is primarily concerned with becoming a solid authority for the content your target audience is searching for. Where your business is located is less of a concern than how strong your site’s authority metrics are for a given topic.
For example, a large varicose vein practice that is mostly concerned with expanding their national rankings for terms like “varicose vein symptoms” or “leg pain from varicose veins” could focus on producing large thorough posts or pages about the symptoms of varicose veins and share these pieces of content widely to increase the number of links to their site. With the right kind of content and engagement, these sites will begin to rank in the general search results.
Why Focus on National SEO?
Unlike the more tangible benefits of local SEO, national SEO is all about boosting your practice’s authority and expanding your site’s reach. This may eventually lead to increased physical traffic as users trickle through your site, but the focus of national SEO campaigns is building rankings, expanding organic traffic to your site, and establishing your practice as an industry authority.
One of the key benefits of national SEO, particularly for doctors, is becoming nationally known as an authority in your field. Much like publishing research expands your clout with your colleagues and in academic circles, you have the opportunity to provide useful information that your target audience raves about. You may not become the next panelist on The Doctors, but it wouldn’t be out of the norm for you to become an essential voice in your practice area.
National SEO vs. Local SEO: 4 Considerations When Choosing the Best Approach for Your Practice?
Unfortunately, despite commonalities in their execution, there isn’t a black-and-white answer for whether an organization can benefit more from a national SEO campaign vs. a local SEO campaign and vice versa, but there are some things to consider before executing your SEO plan:
- Your overall goal(s)
- Your budget
- Your industry and competitors
- Your target audience
I know it’s easy to get lost in the differences, and if you feel stuck, it’s time to consider hiring a healthcare digital marketing agency. Our friends at Bakerlabs have helped hundreds of practices navigate to a plan that benefits their overall growth strategy.
Who Should Focus on National SEO?
If your primary goal is increasing traffic to your site or blog from organic search in order to boost your profile as a specialist with other local general practitioners, you are a shoe-in for a national campaign. Two key things to consider are:
- Your industry and competitors, which are usually a much greater factor in national campaigns, because
- Budgets tend to be much higher
You won’t be competing against the only other guy in town; rather you’re competing against everybody—even big organizations like WebMD or Mayo Clinic, who have large teams and even larger budgets.
Who Should Focus on Local SEO?
If, on the other hand, you are a dentist in a small town with a modest budget trying to reach more local patients, who are driving to the next town for their cleanings, you are a prototypical case for a local SEO campaign. Concerns here are how well optimized your competition may be.
For example, if you’re competing against a larger practice, who sees more patients, you may have a hard time outpacing them in the quantity of reviews.
Is There a Middle Road?
While it isn’t always possible, mainly when budgets are restrictive, a hybrid approach is not only possible but recommended. A solid hybrid approach requires a little more strategy to balance the budgetary needs of an effective national SEO campaign with a great local SEO campaign.
Typically your main concession for a hybrid approach lies in finding the right balance of low competition, high traffic opportunities to clinch national rankings, while also feeding your local SEO campaign enough to be able to outpace your competitors locally.
The path forward may not be obvious from the start, forcing you to experiment and test until you’ve nailed down the right balance of strategies that work best for your practice.
For some practices, the best allocation is heavily weighted toward national SEO while only covering the basics of local SEO. For others, there are a couple of really great opportunities to easily dominate the national search rankings for some specific keywords, but the project is heavily-focused on local SEO.
The bottom line on local SEO and national SEO comes down to whether you have a physical location (or multiple locations!) that you want to promote.
Even if your main goal is not more patients, any practice with at least one physical location should be doing at least basic local SEO. Not only is this the most budget-friendly of the two types of SEO, but it is also the most likely to bleed over.
Afterall, a business with stellar reviews and great local SEO is exactly the kind of authority Google would love to feature in national rankings not to mention featured snippets and other new additions to the search results.
Here is a full list of 200 ranking factors for 2018.
You might already know that Google uses over 200 ranking factors in their algorithm…
But what the heck are they?
Well, you’re in for a treat because I’ve put together a complete list.
Some are proven.
Some are controversial.
Others are SEO nerd speculation.
But they’re all here.
And I recently updated this entire list for 2018.
The Bottom Line On SEO for Healthcare Practices
Regardless of the path you choose, consistency and effectiveness are the keys to strong SEO. You can’t start a local SEO campaign one month, jump to a national SEO campaign the next, take six months of vacation and expect the same results as someone who consistently pursued their balanced campaign slowly, but efficiently for the last eight months.